Review: Dykes, Camera, Action!

Film Critic B. Ruby Rich shown in Dykes, Camera, Action!

New Queer Cinema is a film movement that I have researched for my academic work throughout grad school. It’s something that I have been interested in since college when I was first really exposed to more challenging queer cinema. Coming from a more rural area in Ohio, it’s not always easy to seek out LGBTQ-driven narratives at your local Cinemark. Growing up, I can’t even think of one film that played at our multiplex that was considered a queer story, but when I was in high school, our town was lucky enough to get a small independent movie theatre known as “The Big Picture,” which tragically closed after only a few years of showcasing independent and foreign films, as well as fun late-night horror film screenings. It was here that films like Brokeback Mountain were shown to our community. Even at this theatre, however, a film like that was still a rarity.

Caroline Berler’s documentary Dykes, Camera, Action! fuses the history of lesbian activism and lesbian cinema to weave the tales of these queer filmmakers that broke barriers to finally give voice to their experiences. Using very engaging interviews with key figures of lesbian cinema (Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, Lisa Cholodenko, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich) as well as current lesbian filmmakers on the rise (Yoruba Richen, Desiree Akhavan, and Vicky Du), Berler shows just how drastic the impact of these earlier works have been on the younger generation of filmmakers. We see the transition from Barbara Hammer’s experimental lesbian films of the 70s to Rose Troche’s portrayal of realistic contemporary lesbians of the 90s in Go Fish to Cheryl Dunye’s search for classic examples of queer Black women in The Watermelon Woman and much more. This finally leads to the current state of lesbian portrayals in post-gay marriage society with films like The Kids Are All Right.

Iconic Lesbian Filmmaker Barbara Hammer

When looking at documentaries that focus on queer cinema, the majority of attention is generally placed on white gay male narratives. Caroline Berler more than succeeds in her goal of shifting that focus. In her film, Berler shines the light solely on queer women making films for queer women. Diving into an even more ignored population, the documentary deals heavily with queer women of color. Many of the interviewees in the documentary talk at length about how the main goal in their film work is to simply tell the stories of their communities that they were not able to see on the screen in mainstream Hollywood films. Hearing these stories from well-established lesbian filmmakers like Dunye and Troche makes the documentary all the more effective when you hear the younger lesbian directors speak about how these films made them feel seen and motivated them to pursue filmmaking as a result.

For someone who has a decent background in studying queer cinema, several films were discussed that I had not seen. Naturally, I was jotting down the names of these films to add to my watch list! If you have any interest in lesbian film, you’ll be doing the same. The documentaries and films that were made by the Lesbian Avengers, a queer and feminist activist organization, are just a few that I’m very excited to seek out.

Cheryl Dunye being interviewed in Dykes, Camera, Action!

Film history is ruled by the patriarchy. Male filmmakers are raised up on pedestals that female filmmakers simply do not have access to. But slowly, with films like this, that hyper-unbalanced system is beginning to change. With mainstream films made by straight men (Brokeback Mountain, etc.) so often drawing the focus away from these talented directors, we need more films like Dykes, Camera, Action! to showcase the work of queer filmmakers that have been pushed to the side and further marginalized. Caroline Berler’s documentary is necessary viewing for anyone hoping to learn more about queer women making films.

Dykes, Camera, Action! packs in such a wealth of information in its short 60 minute running time. This is a documentary that will have you seeking out all of the films showcased that you haven’t seen already, and even want to rewatch those that you have. I also really loved how the interview with film critic B. Ruby Rich (the creator of the term “New Queer Cinema”) was used to highlight the chronological history of lesbian cinema throughout the documentary. If you are looking for a documentary to explain the evolution of lesbian cinema, this is the one for you! It features great interviews with so many of the key lesbian filmmakers, clips from their films, and connects everything with the history of queer activism. My only complaint is that I wanted more when the film ended.

My rating: 4.5/5

Dykes, Camera, Action! is currently available to rent through iTunes and is distributed by Frameline Distribution. More information on the film can be found at: https://www.dykescameraaction.com/.

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Sundance Film Festival 2021: The World to Come

Contrasting in the extreme to the Nicolas Cage film earlier today, Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come is a subdued tale of secretive and forbidden queer desire on the 19th century frontier. When Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband (Christopher Abbott) move to the area, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is quickly drawn to the enigmatic red-haired woman who slowly breathes new life into her day-to-day doldrums with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). The film moves slowly over the course of a few months as the two women draw closer together and their chemistry blossoms.

In terms of visuals, The World to Come delivers incredibly lush and beautiful images of the country landscapes throughout several seasons. Fastvold delves deeply into Abigail’s narrative here, as her diary is the primary informative device. Waterston’s incredibly contained voice-over narration for her many diary entries guides us along as she develops feelings for Tallie. Kirby and Waterston’s chemistry is undeniable as the spaces between them slowly shrink as the pair become more comfortable with each other. Fastvold utilizes natural lighting for the internal sequences in the log homes of the women, and for the most part it is very effective. But there are a few moments when the darkness was a bit too overwhelming and swallows the characters into the dark spaces.

In the Q&A for the film, Fastvold discusses how the cinematographer André Chemetoff shot the film on 16mm to capture more grain and a more filmic image. Additionally, she talks about how the title is meant to suggest how same sex love is part of the world to come, and how it was a sign of hope for the future to see these women in this time stuck with the societal norms and judgment of the period while also commenting on how this is still such a harsh reality for queer folks today.

Overall, this was a very effective and powerful film that deals with the queer issues of the 19th century but also is shockingly relevant to the constant battle for equality that is continually fought every day. This was a nice film to wrap up the Sundance Film Festival screenings for the week, and I’m glad that I got a chance to see a new film produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films early, as her production company has been one of my favorites since I was in college. The virtual Sundance Film Festival experience has been incredibly well-handled with the app on the Firestick being very easy to use. So, keep up the great work folks that organized everything during this hectic pandemic time. Thanks again to my friend Lee for making this possible! What a great week for film, indeed!

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